Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How to mat and frame your artwork

Getting ready for an exhibition is always a time when I try to remember all the tips I've ever had from anybody about how artwork should be framed. I thought it might be timely to try and record some of them and this post is a summary of tips for how to mat and frame artwork. Please feel free to comment on mine or share any tips you have by using the comments function.

Bear in mind I'm not an oil painter so I'm not framing boards - although I do have a tip for that!

SOFA 2008: Flying the Flag
10" x 8" coloured pencil on Arches HP

On the right is one of my pieces of feline artwork which has been accepted into the 14th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Feline Artists at the Llewellyn Alexander Gallery. You might be able to guess that is Cosmo extremely proud of his tail. He's in a white waxed tulip wood frame with a bevelled edge with a mat cut from Daler Rowney Studland mountboard in Ivory.

What follows are my tips - but they're certainly not the last word on this topic. They all been derived from observation (mainly in London), information and advice from framers and galleries and other artists - and trial and error on my part!


A mat separates a work on paper from the glass or perspex. It is the first stage in the visual framing of a work and needs to work with both artwork and frame.
  • Competition requirements: First - be very careful about how you mat work for competitions. Some competitions (eg CPSA) have very strict rules about the type of mat that can be used. If you don't observe the rules then your artwork will not be hung even if it has been accepted for exhibition.
  • Quality: Always use an acid free mat (neutral pH) from a reputable source. Relate the expense of the mat to the value of the work. Conservation quality mats are 100% rag. Always use museum conservation quality mats for expensive and/or investment pieces.
  • Colour: Choosing the right colour of mat for a work is a bit like decorating a house to get a quick sale. You want to aim to enhance the work while avoiding any strong colours which people may dislike.
    • Save mats in colours which are strong or a personal choice for the work on your own walls. Leave choices about matching the colour of the mat to the artwork or decor to the person buying the piece.
    • Overall, you can never go wrong with variations on an off white neutral mat colour eg ivory, champagne, old white, pale cream. (Plus the neutral colour of the discarded 'cut out' mat makes a great support for new work!) However stark/brilliant white mats are difficult to work with.
    • dark mats create focus but also tend to confine and control the edges of a piece while lighter mats tend to open it up - you see the work not the mat.
    • If producing work for a group or sole exhibition, try and promote unity within your collection by using the same colour for all the work.
  • Width:
    • A wide border makes a small piece look much more impressive and can help to increase its perceived value.
    • A narrow border can be used with a very large impressive piece (see the image below). In effect it imitates a liner on an oil painting. More and more I'm seeing pastels framed with very narrow mats.
    • Precut mats very often have equal borders and can tend to be mean about the width of the border.
    • Don't be mean! A rule of thumb is that the width of the mat needs to be around about 25% of the width of the shortest dimension eg an 8" edge needs a 2" border; a 12" edge needs a 3" border.
    • I nearly always provide extra weight to a piece by creating a wider border at the bottom (see Flying the Flag)
  • Double Mats and Lining:
    • In my view lining a mat is most appropriate to more traditional subject matter eg botanical art and more traditional approaches to painting. I rarely see a contemporary piece with a double mat and lining.
    • Double mats can help to lead the eye in - but make sure the colours don't compete with the work
    • IMO triple mats can tend to look ostentatious. Make sure the value of the piece deserves the mat it gets!
    • Pastels should never come into contact with glass, perspex cannot be used for pastels and consequently a reversed double mat can be very useful for pastels. The larger window goes next to the piece and the smaller window is nearest the glass. That way if any pastel dust does drop it doesn't create a mess on a visible surface.

Work shown at the Pastel Society exhibition at the Mall Galleries (March 2008)


First and foremost a frame allows you to see the work - it should never ever compete with the work. It also provides structural support, protection and, if you choose wisely, allows the eye to pass easily from a 3D world to a 2D world and shows a work off to best effect.

The next thing to remember is that a lot of the business which framers get actually comes from people who've bought a piece of artwork and now want to change the frame so it fits better with their decor. Do not kid yourself that an expensive frame will help sell your artwork!

Plus you need to factor in the fact that the frame cost is an expense which must be set off against sale income after commission and/or fees have been deducted.
  • Competition framing: If submitting work for competitions then make sure that you pay close attention to what the competition requirements are. For example 'no metal frames' is a very frequent requirement (because they will fix mirror plates to the frame). Interestingly, when hung with lots of other pieces, the works which stand out are those with very neutral frames.
  • "Go as near to white as you dare" was a succinct piece of advice I heard last week. I'd already arrived at that conclusion from visiting many exhibitions and paying attention to the framing used for artwork which 'spoke volumes' across a room. In other words, framing which supports a work rather than competing with the work.
    • For the last two years I've been seeing a lot of wooden frames which have been painted in an offwhite or neutral colour - or are wood with an attractive grain which is then finished with a white wax - such as the tulip wood used for "Flying the Flag". There are lots and lots and lots of neutral shades of paint available at the moment.
    • White frames are great for drawings on white paper which don't fill the page. All you see is the drawing.
    • dark colours can swamp and dominate a work - unless separated by a wide mat or liner
  • Size matters: In general:
    • give a work the size it deserves
    • narrow frames tend to work better with small works
    • big wide frames tend to work best when used with a large piece of art.
    • A narrow to medium sized frame tends to place more emphasis on the artwork.
    • Avoid having a frame and mat of equal width - it'll look odd!
  • Type of frame: The type of frame needs to be matched to the work
    • flat frames work best with 'flat' art eg abstract art and abstracted representational art.
    • contemporary art works best with simple frames
    • very colourful frames only seem to work with very colourful pieces
    • traditional art may need a traditional frame
    • use gilt with caution - a little goes a very long way
    • frames with curves which lead the eye help to focus the eye on the work
  • Framing Boards: Gillian Llewellyn Lloyd provided this tip last week - and it's a very useful one for all artists working in coloured pencil on Ampersand pastelbord. Her tip was that all work on a board needs a slip around its edge to separate the artwork from its frame. A light coloured slip (a narrow piece of wood) lets a work breathe. Consequently when framing a board you need to think about adding a slip as well as a frame.
  • Observe local preferences. What follows relates to the UK. Elsewhere there may be different set of recommendations relating to specific countries or marketplaces.
    • Matt not shiny: Matt (as in 'non-shiny') is way better than shiny unless you're selling to people who like glitz and bling. Heavy gilt frames are not at all popular in London exhibitions and most galleries.
    • Simple not ornate: Ornate frames have become extremely unpopular. I saw a work rejected last week at the submission to SOFA because it was in an ornate carved wood frame. Many people might consider it quite restrained compared to some I've seen but the message was very simple - the work would not sell because of the frame
  • use plain ordinary picture glass
  • if you're concerned about weight and/or UV rays then consider Plexiglas with a treatment to reduce the impact of UV light.
  • do not use non-glare glass as it distorts colours
  • museum glass is extraordinarily expensive and is absolutely appropriate for work which deserves to be in a museum - but not all museums use it! You also cry less about breaking ordinary picture glass!
Backing Boards and Finishing
  • Use archival quality tape to hinge your work - mine is German. Japanese paper and wheat starch is considered to be the best method - but try finding supplies!
  • Make sure your backing board on which you hinge your artwork on paper is also pH neutral. I use foam core - but discovered last week that this is now more expensive than mountboard so I may rethink that strategy!
  • Avoid cardboard and backboards which may leach acid into the paper.
  • Your framer may well use proper framing tacks - these do not bend. However if you don't have the equipment to replace these you might be better off with bendy tacks so that you can swop work in and out of frames.
  • Frames need to be finished at the back with with brown gummed tape. This keeps the work air tight and prevents the intrusion of dust and small insects.
  • Work going into galleries and/or competitive exhibitions and/or storage will be stacked and moved and stacked and moved etc. That means work is sandwiched between two other pieces. Anything which protrudes will damage a frame. Hooks must be removed. D rings with splay pins on back boards are OK but D rings in a frame will need to be covered.
  • If you are submitting work to Art Society exhibitions at the Mall Galleries, the usual rule is no hanging equipment allowed on the back - period. I've had to unscrew D rings (which lie flat) before now!
  • My framer's top tip is to cling film the edges of the frame for storage at home or on submission to some galleries. It helps to cut down on scratches but allows the work to be seen.

You may produce different work and sell in a different context in another part of the world - and may well think differently. To help people understand your context, if you offer a tip, please say what sort of work it works well with and say where you sell if appropriate.


  1. "(because they will fix mirror plates to the frame)"

    I think I may be suffering from a dialect difference on this one. What are mirror plates and why would they be fixing them to the frame? I am finding this requirement a lot in UK show rules, but have never heard it in the US (though I don't have any competition experience, so maybe I've just missed it).

  2. Mirror plates enable a work to hang flush with the wall and avoid it having to be suspended using cord.

    It also means you can be sure people won't be taking works off a wall and walking out the door with them as all works are screwed to the wall!

    This is what they look like - mirror plates

  3. Nice coverage of this topic. You've warned against allowing pastels to come into contact with glass. The same is true for other works on paper and artwork in general. Regular picture glass is acidic, so, as you've pointed out the acid free mat acts as a barrier for the art. Plastic "invisible" spacer strips (with adhesive on one side) can also serve this purpose, for those who prefer to go mat-free.

  4. Thanks Jennifer. I didn't know about glass being acidic!

    I knew you didn't want paper to touch glass because of condensation and the impact on longevity.

    Plexiglass of course pulls off pastel with static!

    I've never tried the spacers but have always wanted to - but never see them anywhere. Does anybody have suggestions as to where to buy them?

  5. Thanks, Katherine! That makes perfect sense now. And might I add (since I neglected to in my first comment, being distracted by what I didn't understand) that these are all wonderful tips, and from my observations, mostly universal too. And thank you, too, for such an overall entertaining and informative blog.

  6. I don't know about invisible spacers but when I did framing in a gallery we used strips of foamboard (white) and cut it about 5mm wide and then put this in the rebate of the frame - so frame, foam, work on top (for floatmounted work attached to a backing board for example). It looks very nice and holds the work away from the glass.

    For UK folk it's probably worth mentioning that most major competitions now do not even allow non-reflective glass.

  7. Great topic, Katherine. Have you tried http://www.silverprint.co.uk/fin19.html
    for tape? Not cheap, but good :)

  8. you've summed up my experiences and beliefs on framing perfectly!

    keep it pale, let it show off the work, not vice versa and keep colours neutral.

    I find that galleries want narrow frames as well - wider ones aren't liked as much even when simple.

  9. Hi Katherine,
    This is an excellent post with lots of food for thought.

    BTW, I loved that larger pastel drawing that was above the smaller landscapes. Do you know who the artist was?

    Thanks again,

  10. I did back in March - but can't remember now. I'll dig out my exhibition catalogue and see if I can work it out. I know what it's of and the dimensions.

  11. BTW the smaller landscapes are by Keith Roper.

    I've checked the catalogue - and they didn't do a normal one this year - just a list of Society members - so I've unfortunately got no way of checking.

  12. Wonderful drawing of Cosmo, Katherine. He gives Basil Brush a run for his money!

    I wish I'd had this framing advice before I wasted money getting it wrong. I'll be wiser next time, thank you.

  13. So, Cosmo, you're in a white waxed tulip wood frame?

    I was hoping for a pine box.

  14. Robyn - you and me both - that's why I wrote this. Getting it wrong on framing can be very expensive.

    I've actually remembered another couple of points!

    1) Set out what you want your framer to do in writing - including all dimensions. I usually take a rough order in with me to the framers, we then redo the measurements, I annotate my rough draft and then revise it and email it to him when I get back home.

    2) Get a written quotation for the job in advance, especially if the job is a large one (eg for an exhibition)

    When I write this up as a guide I'll include the order form I use as an appendix.

  15. To Dermott/From Cosmo:

    Just because you've got no tail to speak of.........teeheehee / swish!

    (Note for readers - Dermott is an old English sheepdog living in Tuscany and belongs to Robyn's 'gardener'. He makes out he hates cats!)

  16. Hi Katherine. A company called Frametek in Oregon www.frametek.com makes plastic spacers. I don't use mats with my pastels and have used these spacers for many years. Very easy to use-you just cut them to the length you need and they have a little groove for attaching to the edge of the glass.


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